Saturday, January 24, 2015
The Outcast and The Hurting
She sat across from me at the local coffee shop. Bleach blond hair, sun bronzed skin, and a bit of a chip on her shoulder. She'd been burned. Badly. She had also made some mistakes. Admittedly.
Nevertheless, the pain ran deep and every now and then I could catch a glimmer of it in her eyes.
I could detect the lump in her throat when she skirted around sensitive topics. It was my job to listen. To love. To empathize. I did the best I could, but in the end she left. Past hurts piled up, present struggles loomed large, and church just didn't seem to be the place she could count on. It was not a huge surprise to me. Working for a church I had seen it over and over. People left. It's just how it is.
The problem was, I always thought something was wrong with them.
That they were the broken ones. I always thought is was their theological misunderstandings or their frailty that kept them from entering into community. That prevented them from staying. I realize now it was so much more. So much more complex.
If I could say I'm sorry to everyone I ever considered to be wrong because they left the church I would. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for "taking sides." My heart aches over broken relationships.
I've since come to realize that side-taking leads to division. Someone has to win and sadly, someone has to lose. Have mercy on us, the church, the body of believers, the ones entrusted with so great a gift. I recognize we're not perfect, I'm not perfect, but we can do better. I can do better.
This is not a cookie cutter meditation on why people leave the church. It is a story. It's not everybody's story. It's mine. But I've been around long enough to know that it will likely resonate with someone else. I believe we are more alike than we are different, all with the same heart, the same receptacles for love and pain. The same desire to be a part. To feel accepted. To know love. I hear a lot about millennials leaving the church and while those numbers are indeed high, I'm convinced it's not just young people. It's anyone who has been hurt, isolated, marginalized, made fun of, considered irrelevant, taken advantage of. I don't think they're any different than others who leave. They come searching for a place that's real and transparent, freely admitting their own junk.
They want someone to say, "We're just as messed up as you - now let's have communion together."
I find myself on the other side now. I find that I have been hurt, badly wounded. And, I have made mistakes. The scars run deep, I'm not recovered. The pain is near and familiar. I don't want it to be, but it is.
So I've left. I've left church. I have alluded to it previously but now I have come to grips with the fact that it's true. The questions and doubts have grown in my mind and my heart over the course of the last several months. I try to find safe answers. Theological explanations. Justifications. I come up empty handed.
Now I find myself fighting to trust that the gospel is true.
I cling to the faith God gave me.
And, I count on the fact that what I can't do on my own, the gospel will do.
I started running. It clears my head. It makes me feel good. I write. I work. I enjoy my family. I love my husband. But, I don't go to church. It's o.k., and, I believe it's o.k. with God. I know that might scare some people. You might even doubt my salvation. That's o.k. too. I'm older now and honestly, I don't care much what others think anymore. God has made promises in the gospel that should freak us all out. If we were to actually live what we believe Jesus taught about freedom we would all be questioning everyone's salvation.
I recall a conversation I had with a young woman last year. I hadn't talked to her in a while and I had not seen her at church in a couple of months. When I called to see how she was she simply replied, "I stopped going to church." I could hear the authentic desperation of her afflicted soul.
Truth and transparency tumbled out of her heart and I found a fellow sojourner who gave me the freedom to be honest. I will never forget that conversation.
We didn't solve the worlds problems or even find a way back for ourselves, but somehow the world got a whole lot smaller and the gospel got a whole lot bigger.
That's why I won't stop being honest about the reality of struggle and pain and desperation. If it helps one other person, so be it. Transparency scares some, but I can only speak to the freedom I have found in being who I am, and the freedom other's have given me as a result of their honesty about who they are.
Sometimes, we just need a time out. That's what I'm doing, taking a time out. I'm not wallowing in guilt about it. I'm not rushing to find a solution. I'm not worried or hand-wringing or anxious. I believe if Jesus was present in the flesh, he just might go running with me on a Sunday morning. We'd be surprised to find that he might not necessarily be in a church service. Blasphemous? I don't think so.
This is what's on my mind these days. God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Let me paraphrase that a bit.
God shows his love for me in that while I'm taking a time out, Christ died for me.
God shows his love for us in that while we are judging others, Christ died for us.
God shows his love for us in that while we are leaving the church, Christ died for us.
And, God shows his love for you and for me in that he never gives up on us, never leaves us, never forsakes us.
Maybe you will find a soft spot here to rest your weary head.
Maybe you will find that you're not alone.
Maybe you will realize, even for the very first time, that it's o.k.
God's not mad at you.
God is for you.
His grace is big enough for doubts, questions, frustrations, pain, hurt and sorrow. And, just maybe, you will find that in the midst of your story, just like mine, the gospel is true. You will see Jesus who does not condemn you. Jesus who weeps over you. Jesus who loves you deeply. Jesus who, despite the back-turning you have experienced, will never turn his back on you.
Saturday, January 3, 2015
The Despair of Worldly Wisdom
It's a popular motivational phrase. Failure is not an option. We grow up hearing it on the baseball field and at school. Coaches, teachers and parents "encourage" kids to scratch failure off their list. Success is the name of the game. We are trained well and soon develop an aversion to anything less than success. We are uncomfortable with less than perfection, or at least, the standard set by the world.
You can't help but recount all those moments along the way where this scenario has played itself out. I remember vividly the day I received a big promotion. More money. More responsibility. More staff. I actually felt sick to my stomach. Sure I was excited, but nervous at the same time. However, I never let on. How could I? So, I set out to succeed.
For some, the knowledge of failure has been simmering just below the surface for a while. Tragedy, suffering and despair came at an early age. Loss of a parent, sexual, physical or mental abuse, poverty or drugs and alcohol were part of their story and the failure was front and center.
For these folks the need to cover up was even more intense. Pretense became a way of life. A way to survive. Buried under shame and regret they would do anything to perpetuate the image of success.
Interestingly, this actually works...temporarily. You can pull yourself together and put your best foot forward. You can rally because the show must go on. However, at some point the curtain drops. The lights fade. Then what? Now what are your options? If we are conditioned to believe that failure is not an option, where can we turn when the gig is up? When the beans spill? When the crash and burn comes?
If failure is not an option and you've failed, what's next?
The Relief of the Gospel
The truth is, failure is your only option.
The world says you can't fail, it's not an option, but the Bible confesses we all fail, it's our only option.
The Ten Commandments, The Beatitudes, The Sermon on the Mount - all the commands and demands in the Bible should make us fall on our knees.
When we look at the perfection of God, when we consider his standard, we all with a gasping breath should chime in with the tax collector who "while standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’"
It is not a resignation to a life of dreary last places, it is a recognition of the Life that came in first, for you and for me. Christ came. He became last that you would be first.
It is of great relief to know that striving can cease. That pretense can end. That truth can come out. It is a great burden lifted when you realize it is OK to be honest about who you are, and, it is a great peace that comes when you by faith receive the rest God promised. Jesus didn't come to give you a boost so you can be on your failure is not an option way. Jesus came to raise your body from the death it's been bound by so you can be on your way to freedom. It is his perfection you live in which gives you the ability to let go. Admit you're a hot mess and move on, all the while pointing to Him as the reason you are free from needing to pretend you have it all together.
If you are struggling to believe this good news, or, if you cannot imagine how a perfect God could love a failure, adulterer, rebel like you - take a moment to read about Paul. He writes in the first chapter of 1 Timothy:
Though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 1 Tim 1:13-16
Failure gives us an opportunity to point to Jesus, the One who on our behalf never fails, who always gets it right.